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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Common Sense Conflict Resolution

Common Sense Conflict Resolution

Dr. Ryan Donlan
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

For our Assistant Principals and others who enjoy the “he-said’s” and “she-said’s” of student interaction, I have an admission:  I love conflict.

I’m not referring to the de-escalation inherent in conflict-left-unchecked.  That’s hard to like.

I’m referring to conflict that brings about the best of “teachable moments” by our busiest building leaders doing what they do best – keeping children safe and encouraging good decision making.

Our best leaders turn the “flight-or-fight” into “higher-order thinking.”

They need not be psychologists to do it.

Since I have personally used Chadwick’s conflict resolution model (personal communication, August 14, 2001) for over a decade, I’m going to share an adaptation, one incredibly simple and based on common sense. 

It is one that works.

Some background: Bob Chadwick is an internationally renowned conflict resolution and consensus building specialist from Consensus Associates in Oregon. I met Bob over 10 years ago when I was leading K-12 with the premise that no human being should lay a hand upon another in anger.  If physical conflicts occurred, those involved would lose their opportunity to attend school when others were attending class.  Thus, a tool to maintain a culture of civility was critical. Conflict resolution was just that.

Conflict resolution can become part of a school’s culture.  It can be practiced, believed, and valued as what works when situations arise.  Formal conflict resolutions, done well, are brief, structured, facilitated conversations that are all about “two people versus a problem,” as opposed to “one person versus another.”

Here’s the basic framework of Common Sense, Conflict Resolution with some cautionary statements prior:

To Those Leading:  Be proactive in supervision. Keep a finger on the pulse of the school. Listen; eavesdrop. Don’t let instructional leadership interfere with sound building management. When anger arises, act quickly to provide a safe, quiet place for de-escalation. Get proper training (this article is no substitute for proper training). Be patient. If students cannot or will not participate in a conflict resolution, keep them isolated or send them home until they do. Do not avoid the process and send students back to class with separate promises that “All is well.”  All social interaction must stop until a conflict resolution with a trained facilitator (an adult, not a peer) takes place.

Conflict Resolution Process

Step One:  You’re facilitating.  Bring participants into a private room with three chairs situated as if they are spokes on a wheel facing a center point (120 degree angles). Have a seat. Thank both for participating, and mention that staff felt a conflict resolution was necessary. If the two deny any sort of conflict (which is common), mention the general nature of what you understand is going on, without laying blame or making judgment.  Then move forward with the process, expecting them (not asking them) to move with you.

Step Two: Offer ground rules, such as, “None of us will return to class until the process sees itself through; we’ll all remain in our seats. Language should be appropriate, and we’ll each take turn in answering without interruption. If any of us refuse to participate, that person will go home until the process can be resumed.”  You may find other ground rules work as well.

Step Three:  You’ll want to mention to them that although the questions asked will be very short, the answers can take as long as they need to take.  Then ask your questions, taking turns on which student goes first for each question. 

The first:  “What is your perception of the problem, and how do you feel about it?”

The word “perception” is very important, as we do not want each alleging “facts.” The two sides will naturally differ in account.  Students will often not answer the 2nd part of the question, so you may need to tactfully remind them and encourage their answers.  This is necessary to allow disclosure of how the situation affects each person, as each has probably not seen things from the other’s perspective.

Step Four:  Ask next, “What do you need from [name of other person] in order to solve this conflict and move forward?” 

The key word is “need.” This second question begins the process of bringing students out of brainstem behavior, as they are verbalizing their needs. Again, ensure that you alternate who answers each question first.  Students’ using each other’s names is also very important, rather than using “him, her, he, or she” when describing what occurred.

Step Five:  Next ask, “What can you do, in order to help solve this conflict with [name of other person] and move forward?

This question begins the use of each participant’s higher-level thinking processes, where problem solving is more probable.  Hold each accountable for an action step.

Step Six:  Finally ask, “Can you both live with that?”

Getting nods at this point is fine.  Consensus has been reached.  It is not necessary that the two become friends, shake hands, or hug.  Professional solutions for pro-social workplace behavior are the goals.

Step Seven:  Discuss what each should do when one of two things happen:  (1) Others inquire as to what happened, and (2) Others try to stir-up the conflict after the session. 

Strategies here include saying, “Thank you, but we have it handled” and if necessary, proceeding back to the facilitator to check the accuracy of the rumor mill, rather than approaching each other directly with accusation derived from “spin.” 

Step Eight:  To conclude, ask each, “What was your perception of the process, and how do you feel about it?”

Some will say that it worked well.  Others will say it was stupid and a waste of time.  Just smile, nod, and thank them.

The entire process typically takes around 10 minutes. 

After your second question in the process above (regarding “needs”), you should see non-verbal behavior improve (arms will unfold … knees will stop bouncing).  If you sense that the session is not working, then either you are not comfortable in your facilitation or the two are not being completely honest about the “real” conflict (Rather than “He/she gave me a dirty look and called me a ‘such-and-such,’” the problem was more likely that one hooked up with the other’s boyfriend/girlfriend at a party).

If conflict’s real story has yet to present itself and the process is not moving forward, it is better to separate the two, let them ponder a while in isolation (they won’t like it), and ask others on staff to periodically visit and help unearth the details. 

Don’t attach any ego to the resolution.  Today might not be your “A-Game.”  The two may need another voice and another’s style. 

You’ll eventually find that the process will work.

Chadwick knows his stuff. 


Dr. Ryan Donlan is happy to demonstrate these techniques and asks that you call or write if you have any questions or comments at or (812) 237-8624.  

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